The Palestinian revolution was created by the men and women who lived through the experience of the Nakba (the Catastrophe). These revolutionaries identified themselves as ‘The Nakba Generation’, and their world can be understood only in light of this foundational event. As with all collective tragedies the Nakba can be approached in a number of ways. Most commonly it is defined in terms of the number of people uprooted from their homes; the forcible expulsion and dispossession of 750,000-950,000 Palestinians; the violent expropriation of 78% of their native lands by recently arrived European Jewish settlers; the death of more than 12,000 Palestinians over 1947 and 1948 along with the injury of tens of thousands; the massacre of hundreds of villagers and townspeople in nearly three dozen localities.
Yet these numbers do not capture the meaning of the Nakba, which is better grasped through the now thousands of oral narratives and memoirs of the period that have been recorded, filmed, written down, and published. Each highlights the seminal nature of the event, and the Nakba’s overwhelming impact upon the lives of those who experienced it. Amongst these histories there is a specificity to revolutionary recollections. These do not only describe the moments of individual and collective destruction of home and society; they allow us to understand the centrality of the experience of dispossession to the formation of Palestinian revolutionary consciousness
The first accounts here are by Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) and George Habash (Al-Hakeem), two young men who went on to become leading revolutionaries. Their recollections give us a sense of their secondary socialisation prior to the Nakba. Both figures were involved in anti-colonial activities as school students in Jaffa and Lydd respectively, and their engagement took the shape of occasional mobilisations within resistance structures that had existed in Palestine during the late British Mandate period. In the case of Abu Iyad, this is seen in his participation in the Ashbāl (Lion Cubs) section of the al-Najjada organisation, a type of patriotic boy scouts’ activity. As for Habash it was reflected through his participation in school strikes and national demonstrations. More significantly, both accounts illustrate that a national tragedy, affecting an entire people, was witnessed and experienced at an extremely intimate level. Neither Khalaf nor Habash heard of these events through the radio, a newspaper, or even a parent, grandparent or other relative: they lived through the unfolding collective disaster themselves.
The factual record of the Nakba is growing rapidly, and researchers are unearthing atrocities whose memory had hitherto been overlooked. These moments of profound national loss altered the lives of a large number of future Palestinian leaders and cadres. One example is the Tantura massacre, during which dozens of inhabitants from the village were slaughtered. ʿAbd al-Razzaq al-Yahya, a young cadet from this village (and a future commander of the Palestine Liberation Army) gives his account here. His memories reflect the anguish and concern he experienced as he learnt of the massacre while receiving military training in Syria, and the profound marks it left on his family and himself.
One of those mentioned in this source is ʿAbd al-Qadir al-Husayni, who lost his life during the battle for Palestine. Such iconic figures were revered on both a national and a broader Arab scale, and had a stature that can be seen in any macro-historical account. However, the experience of the Nakba can also be approached most usefully micro-historically. At a grassroots level, memories of resistance were connected to local as well as national experiences. Most fighters (especially in rural districts) did not publish memoirs, but their accounts circulated orally, creating the foundation for a growing literature of local Palestinian histories. A typical example is the discussion of the village of Hamama in the ͑Asqalan district authored by a son of the village. Such sources provide a rich description of the lives of rural men and women that would otherwise be overlooked, recording the resistance of those that fought and lived, as well as the names of those that died.
A recurring theme in such accounts is the imagination and ingenuity of fighters in devising methods of resistance in the face of superior Zionist strength and inadequate Arab army support. One such description, of the defense of Salamah village, describes the benefits of shifting political organisation for the defense of a town from its notables to the youth, through elections. For many future revolutionaries growing up in the refugee camps of the 1950s, these stories of fighters from their own villages had a deep influence on their worldviews and future choices. Equally influential was a sense of the political and military helplessness that surrounded the experience of dispossession. Palestinians lacked adequate organisations, weapons, or training to confront the scale of the military assault waged against their them. This predicament created the impetus for more organised future revolutionary involvement, one that could provide a concrete means to reverse their dispossession from their homes.
The absence of powerful and effective organisations on the eve of the Nakba was due to a variety of factors. Most important was (and as noted by Abu Iyad), the wholesale destruction of organised political activity by the British colonial power during the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt, critically weakening Palestinian capacity for resistance in 1948. Yet there was widespread resistance: as the memoirs of Ahmad al-Yamani (Abu Mahir) show, huge effort was exerted on local levels to withstand the existential crisis then faced by Palestinians. Abu Mahir, for instance, drew on his experience as a trade union organiser and working class activist to establish local committees in the Galilee district surrounding his village Suhmata. This initiative eventually collapsed through an overpowering military conquest, and ultimately the inhabitants of the district were all forced out of Palestine. Before they were expelled, some were thrown into forced labour camps, as described here, or coerced into acting as servants for Zionist fighters.
The urban notable leadership did not possess either material or military backing to prevent this national destruction, nor did they have the political capacities to represent their people, or preserve their country intact. The most ambitious of their political initiatives, in the immediate aftermath of the Nakba, was the All-Palestine Government, whose founding declaration is presented here. The government was established on 22 September 1948, at a time when the Nakba was still unfolding. Although its official capital was Jerusalem, its actual headquarters were in Gaza before moving (under Egyptian pressure) to Cairo. Its President (Haj Amin al-Husayni), Prime Minister (Ahmad Hilmi ʿAbd al-Baqi Pasha), and the cabinet were made up of ministers all drawn from urban notable backgrounds.
In theory this institution (recognised by the Arab League states except Jordan) had a mandate that extended over the entirety of Palestine. However, by the end of the war the state of Israel had just been established over 78% of the British Mandate Palestine’s territory; the remaining 22% of the country was now referred to as “the West Bank and Gaza Strip”. Those Palestinians remaining in territories lost in 1948 were subjected to strict Israeli military rule and martial law, while the West Bank was annexed by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Only a very small corner of Palestine, the Gaza Strip, was theoretically under the domain of the All-Palestine Government. Even there however, political, military, and financial control was firmly held by the Egyptian administration. So, by the end of the 1948 war, Palestine was erased from the political map.
Under such extreme conditions of external colonial and regional domination, the All-Palestine government proved unable to advance their people’s cause. The core demand of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands was completely rejected by the new Israeli state. A tiny number of refugees smuggled themselves back into their country, including political figures affiliated with the Communist Party such as Emile Habibi and Emile Touma. They became prominent leaders within the ranks of Palestinians who remained within the boundaries of the newly established Israeli state.
The political and humanitarian outcomes of the 1948 War created major transformations in regional political thought, as Arab intellectuals began to grapple with the outcome of the war and its cataclysmic implications. Amongst the most significant texts to emerge was The Meaning of Disaster (Maʿana al-Nakba). This classic text, published in August 1948, was written by Constantine Zurayk, a Syrian professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and one of the foremost Arab intellectual figures of the mid 20th century. It was here that the word “Nakba” was first used as a description of the series of events of 1947 to 1948 in Palestine. These events were not only catastrophic for the Palestinians, wrote Zurayk, but for the Arabs as a whole. In his estimation, the catastrophe was caused by the absence of a modern political structure that could liberate the Arab world from foreign dominance and control. Therefore, reversing the Nakba required Arab political and territorial unity, as well as economic and social modernisation. This great transformation, in Zurayk’s conception, could only come about through a young revolutionary elite that possessed a modernising social and political outlook and impeccable moral credentials. From the perspective of Palestinian revolutionary history, perhaps the most important passages here pertain to the critical step this elite must undertake, which was to “organise and unify itself into well-knit parties and organisations.”
The theory of revolutionary transformation articulated by Zurayk belongs to the well established vanguardist tradition in modern political thought. What is most relevant to the generation of the Nakba is its immense impact on the Arab political scene. One of the book’s immediate and direct effects was the establishment of a group that eventually took the name the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) in Beirut. The next reading is from the memoirs of one of its founders, Ahmad al-Khatib, who was a Kuwaiti medical student in 1948. Al-Khatib was part of a circle of students from various Arab countries, including George Habash, Wadiʿ Haddad, and Hani al-Hindi, all closely connected to Zurayk, and highly influenced by The Meaning of Disaster. Giving a sense of the intellectual development of this group, al-Khatib’s memoirs show how the aim of reversing the Nakba propelled him and his comrades to seek the transformation of the Arab political reality by creating a clandestine network operating across the region. Al-Khatib established the Kuwaiti branch of this network, which was soon to become the most important political movement in that country, and a firm base for pan-Arab popular action towards the liberation of Palestine.
Al-Khatib was part of a generation that understood the cause of Palestine as belonging to them as much as it belonged to the Palestinian people. However, his experience of the Nakba was more direct than most. His time as a medical volunteer in ʿAin al-Hilweh refugee camp for Palestinians in the south of Lebanon filled him with frustration with “the Zionists, the countries that supported them, and the Arab parties and countries that failed the Palestinians.” This frustration provided the impetus to chart a path influenced by the legacy of the previous generation of Palestinian revolutionaries. Along with George Habash and Wadiʿ Haddad, al-Khatib would regularly visit an injured old fighter, Ibrahim Abu Dayya. Abu Dayya taught them patriotic songs and shared his vast experience of armed struggle in great detail. He had participated in the 1936 revolt, but had really gained fame and distinction during the 1948 war, when he was a leading military commander with a famous victory at the battle of Surif. Severely wounded after being hit with seven bullets during a successful attack on Ramat Rahil, he eventually ended up in the AUB hospital in Beirut. On the news of his death in March 1952, he was eulogised in the recently established newspaper al-Thaʾar, the earliest publication of the Movement of Arab Nationalists. Here, the young generation of revolutionaries vowed, in his memory, to revive the struggle, drawing on his rich historical legacy.
While prominent fighters like Abu Dayya were remembered by name, ordinary people involved in the struggle for Palestine lived on in collective forms such as literature. Their experiences were reconstructed in the works of revolutionary authors such as Samira Azzam, who experienced the Nakba as a 20-year-old young woman and became active in the Palestine Liberation Front-Path of Return group in the 1960s. Her short story Bread of Sacrifice (1960) approaches the Nakba from the standpoint of Palestinian urban resistance. Set on the eve of the fall of Haifa, April 22 1948, the story is underscored by romantic motifs, and culminates in a tragic ending. Yet tragedy here signals an on-going grievance that is a source of renewed mobilisation. Significantly, this mobilisation draws upon the contributions of women as well as men. As Azzam’s heroine Suʿad makes clear, confronting the Nakba was a natural and essential human need experienced regardless of gender, and challenging patriarchal authority was the first step towards women’s participation in the revolutionary struggle to return home.
Beyond its defining impact on Palestinian and Arab grassroots political movements, the Nakba also shaped the experience of a generation of Arab leaders who assumed power through revolutionary action in the 1950s. Many had participated in the Palestine War, fighting in their countries’ armies following the Arab declaration of war in May 1948. The most prominent of these was Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose time in Palestine influenced the future course of the Palestinian revolution; his approach to the cause, his understanding of it, and his sympathy with it cannot be viewed in isolation from his experience of the Nakba, as seen in his memoirs. For members of his generation, this event was a defining moment that had altered the fate of the region for decades to come.